The Magazine

The Talent Contest

What makes a political winner? Ideology and party platforms are overrated.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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His good luck was that he had a skilled team that made him pretend to like pork rinds, and that his opponent was Michael Dukakis, a man whose common touch was even less obvious, and who had the misfortune to ride in a tank; to preside over the furlough of a murderer who proceeded to assault a young couple; and to exhibit indifference, in a TV debate watched by tens of millions, to the hypothetical murder and rape of his wife. This was enough to elect Bush, but not enough to let Bush prevail over William J. Clinton, a political prodigy who became governor of Arkansas before he was 30 and had planned to be president since, as a teenager, he had shaken John Kennedy’s hand. Added to this were the facts that Bush was elected president when he was 67, was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in his third year in office, and, after successfully overseeing the end of the Cold War and ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in a brilliantly engineered action, seemed to have run out of things that he wanted to do. 

A generation younger, Bill Clinton could think of hundreds of things, and was one of the most gifted of all politicians, blending the empathy skills of the eager glad-hander with the policy chops of the nerd. “He was capable of constant emotional scans of everyone in the room in real time while he was thinking,” one of his associates told Sally Bedell Smith for her book on the Clintons, adding that “he could recognize, quantify, and calibrate a response to the emotional state of the person with him” and of every new person he met on the trail. These were not the traits of the people who ran against him, and once he centered himself after the ’94 midterms, he made short work of Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, who belonged to the same generation as George Bush the elder and was still more laconic. What Dole proved was that “senator’s senators”—men who, like himself and Edward M. Kennedy, know, love, and are attuned to the slow pace and rules of the Senate—tend to make less than good national candidates, as they seem to have the wrong skill sets and message to run on the national scene. As it was, the man whom Joe Klein would describe as “The Natural” faced two opponents who were not in his league when it came to campaigning. And the spotlight moved on to his heir. 

In 1952, when Prescott Bush and Albert Gore Sr. entered the Senate together, they had no way of knowing that their kin (along with that of their classmate, John Kennedy) would help to define much of the coming half-century, or that their grandson and son would fight for the White House against each other almost 50 years on. The difference was that Albert Gore Jr., who was not a born politician, was pushed into the role by his iron-willed father, while George W. Bush, who had better political skills than his father, jumped into the fray on his own. As a result, by 2000, the younger Bush, elected governor twice, had developed his own set of issues and style, while Gore, who had only won seats once held by his father before becoming Clinton’s running mate, faced the first election he had to win wholly on his own at a time when he was still striving to find his own voice. Seeking a role that might fit, he hired a guru to dress him in earth tones, and may have lost the election at the debates, when he sighed in disgust and groaned audibly in the first; seemed almost comatose in the second encounter; and in the third, attempting to regain the offensive, left his chair, stalked over to Bush and loomed awkwardly, while Bush nodded at him, and the audience laughed. 

John Kerry never tried such theatrics, but he too was an awkward and unloved politician, who, like Mitt Romney, injured his case with his maladroit statements, and did nothing to tone down his ultra-luxe style, which ran to numerous houses and mansions, ski chalets whose stones were imported from England, and yachts.

In 2008, two controversial yet much lauded icons made their long-planned bids for national power, one being the war hero John McCain, who had been tortured by the Vietnamese for several years in the late 1960s, and the other the feminist heroine Hillary Clinton, who had been tortured perhaps even longer by Bill Clinton’s betrayals (which made her fans love her the more). Both had been planning their runs since 2000, when Hillary was elected to the Senate from New York and McCain had been narrowly (and bitterly) beaten for the nomination by Bush. 

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